31/01/2018 10:12 AM AEDT

Iranian Women To U.S.: Our Protest Isn’t About The Hijab. It Is About Freedom.

“We are fighting for freedom to choose to wear or not wear hijab. Our fight is against compulsion. Our fight is for freedom of choice.”

Protests have swept across Iran in recent weeks, the largest in almost a decade, as Iranians take to the streets to protest abysmal economic conditions and allegations of widespread corruption.

In recent days, however, at least six Iranian women have captured the attention of the West by challenging the country’s hijab mandate. Images of these women taking off and waving their headscarves are going viral on social media.

Taking off the hijab in public is punishable with fines or even jail time. But police officials announced last month that they will no longer arrest women for failing to observe the Islamic dress code, which has been in place since the 1979 revolution. However, at least two women have been arrested, including one on Monday.

The protests appear to have been inspired by 31-year-old Vida Movahed, who reportedly was arrested briefly after being photographed waving her hijab while standing on a utility box on Enghelab Street in central Tehran, according to The Guardian.

Although her protest occurred in December and was not directly linked to the small uptick in women’s demonstrations, the image of her act of resistance quickly spread online.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian activist and the founder of My Stealthy Freedom, a social media campaign that began four years go in which women in Iran post pictures of themselves without their headscarves, said the protests are not against Islam or women who choose to wear the hijab. Rather, she said, they are about having a choice. Her mother and sister choose to wear hijabs, she told HuffPost in a phone interview.

“We are fighting for freedom to choose to wear or not wear hijab,” she said. “Our fight is against compulsion. Our fight is for freedom of choice.” 

Zahra Safyari, an Iranian who voluntarily wears a hijab, tweeted: “I wear the chador [an open cloak]. I chose to wear the hijab, it wasn’t forced on me by my family or the society, nor was it a work requirement. I am happy with my choice but I am opposed to forced hijab and that’s why I appreciate the Girls of Enghelab Street. Religion and hijab should not be compulsory.”

Other non-Iranian Muslim women, those who wear the hijab and those who don’t, also voiced their support for an Iranian woman’s freedom to choose, pointing out that the mandate is forced by the government and that “there is no compulsion in religion,” according to Islamic teachings.

The law mandating the hijab has been enforced since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and a head scarf is obligatory for every woman in the country, even tourists and visiting foreign dignitaries.

Iran’s “morality police,” an official arm of the state’s police force that primarily focuses on women’s dress codes, has intensified over the last few weeks. Despite this, a growing number of women in Iran continue to defy the government’s encroachment on policing women’s bodies by getting creative with their hijab and testing the limits of the law.  

“Iranian women are putting themselves in danger. They want to be heard and recognized,” Alinejad said. “These are individual people fighting for freedom.”

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